It’s hard to believe that the British Academy of Film and Television Arts – or BAFTA, as it is known to most of us – turns 70 this year. In honour of this momentous occasion, the Academy has put together a special exhibition featuring over 100 pieces of Academy history dating back to the organisation’s launch in 1947. I went along to see this exhibition, on display at the BAFTA headquarters in Piccadilly, today.
The exhibition’s aim is “to showcase some of the many ways in which BAFTA has continued to deliver its mission to honour excellence across the screen arts and promote British talent, against an ever-changing visual and technological landscape.” It does so via a collection of vintage photography, early broadcast footage, awards brochure adverts, journals and ephemera. I loved the elegant black & white photos of the Academy’s founding members and the footage of figures such as Audrey Hepburn receiving awards – they brought what BAFTA does to life. In particular, I enjoyed hearing about the Academy’s history and how it has evolved over the years, as follows…
In the years that followed World War II, British cinema enjoyed a extraordinary golden age as people turned to film for escapism, information and a sense of community. Building upon this momentum, the legendary producer & director Alexander Korda came together with leading figures in British film to create an Academy that would support the talent employed across the industry and build a greater appreciation of cinema up & down the country. In 1947, the British Film Academy, as it was then known, was officially launched. David Lean was its chair, and made it clear that the Academy would only succeed as a democracy – a belief which it continues to hold dear.
From its very beginnings, the Academy was open to all film makers working on productions in British studios. Interestingly, a number of prolific & critically-acclaimed women in the industry were heavily involved in the Academy’s formative years. The film producer Betty Box, the art director Carmen Dillon and the screen writer & director Muriel Box were some of the Academy’s first members, with Betty going on to join the council of management in 1953.
Awards for film-making began in 1949, but it wasn’t until 1953 when the first actors and actresses received awards for their performances in film and 1955 that the craft of screenwriting was recognised. In the 1960s, the Academy introduced Film Award categories to recognise excellence behind the scenes. Additional categories, such as Excellence in Visual and Special Effects, would follow in later decades.
The above encapsulates some of BAFTA’s history – but what of its location? I wasn’t previously aware of this, but BAFTA hasn’t always been based in the current glamorous West End building (195 Piccadilly) that these days it calls home – in fact, prior to 1976 its HQ was a suite of offices in Great Portland Street. That all changed in the early 1970s, following a donation from the Royal Family which enabled BAFTA to move to Piccadilly. This Grade II-listed building has a highly interesting history in its own right, having begun life in 1883 as the galleries of the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours – I’ve attached a photo of the original building, below.
The opening of the new headquarters was attended by the Queen, Prince Philip, Princess Anne and the Earl of Mountbatten – the photo below shows Charlie Chaplin, at the Royal Opening, receiving the Academy Fellowship. BAFTA has continued to maintain strong royal connection; all but one of its presidents (Richard Attenborough) have been members of the Royal Family, with Prince William the current incumbent.
Looking ahead to the future, and BAFTA prides itself on moving with the times. Having recognised the power of television as far back as 1958 (and merged accordingly with the Guild of Television Producers & Directors), BAFTA continues to recognise, and work with, new platforms. Its BAFTA Games Awards are acknowledged as the major annual ceremony rewarding excellence in the art of game-making. Similarly, the organisation’s mandate continues to evolve: BAFTA maintains a year-round, international programme of learning events which includes workshops, master classes, scholarships, lectures and mentoring schemes, aimed at people of all ages.
Happy 70th Birthday, BAFTA: long may you continue to innovate and inspire.